Winthrop Rockefeller was born May 1, 1912, the fourth son of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. Affectionately known as "Win" to family and friends, he attended the Lincoln School, a progressive co-educational preparatory school connected with Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City, and the Loomis School in Windsor, Connecticut before entering Yale University in 1931. He left school in 1934 and worked in the Texas oil fields as a roughneck and roustabout for the Humble Oil and Refining Company.
Rockefeller returned to New York City by 1937, but after a series of executive positions he enlisted in the Army as a private in January 1941. During World War II he participated in the assault landings on Guam, Leyte, and Okinawa in the Pacific. Aboard the troop transport Henrico, en route to Okinawa, he was wounded in a kamikaze attack. Among his decorations were the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Purple Heart. He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel by the time of his discharge in 1946.
After the war Rockefeller returned to the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company, but resigned in 1951. By 1953 he decided that he needed a change of scenery from New York and settled permanently in Arkansas. That June he purchased a 927-acre tract atop Petit Jean Mountain, 60 miles west of Little Rock, where he built Winrock Farms into an internationally recognized cattle operation whose pure-bred Santa Gertrudis cattle drew buyers from many parts of the world. The "WR" brand became internationally known as a symbol of excellence among Santa Gertrudis owners.
In 1955 Governor Orval Faubus appointed Rockefeller to the new Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, where he served eight years as chairman. Under his leadership, the commission helped 600 industries locate to or expand in Arkansas, creating more than 100,000 job opportunities.
As the state Republican National committeeman beginning in 1961, he led efforts to bring about a two-party system in heavily Democratic Arkansas. He ran for governor in 1964 and received 44% of the vote, which doubled the previous record of total votes cast in the state for any Republican candidate. "We sincerely believe we won a victory, even in defeat," he said. He won the election for governor in 1966 and took office in 1967, becoming the first Republican governor in Arkansas in 94 years. He won re-election in 1968 but lost in a three-way race in 1970. His two terms in office were marked by a state legislature that was overwhelmingly Democratic. At one time, there were 97 Democrats and three Republicans in the Arkansas House of Representatives.
He considered one of his greatest challenges as governor to be the reform of the state penal system. He brought in professional penologists as part of his corrective measures. His administration also shut down open gambling in Hot Springs, a resort area. Other reform legislation enacted under his administration included governmental reorganization and tighter insurance and securities regulations. He was especially proud of the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act of 1967, which had the effect of opening official meetings to the public. "We have taken the government out of the smoke-filled rooms and returned it to the people," he said.
Winthrop Rockefeller contributed money and time to a number of philanthropic projects and causes that the family favored. His attitude toward wealth and its uses echoed the sentiments of his father: "I have enjoyed the personal use of money," he wrote in his unpublished "A Letter to My Son." "But I have gotten the greatest satisfaction from using it to advance my beliefs in human relations - human values. . . . The biggest returns from the investment of money come in what we can call philanthropic achievements, in the encouragement of people who make our business grow, making jobs and security for others, and in the development of men, their happiness, their usefulness and their freedom." He was chairman of the board of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which his father established, and in 1940 was one of the founders the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, of which he was a trustee. He also served as a trustee of the National Urban League, 1940-1964.
He undertook several philanthropic projects to promote the development of education and public health in Arkansas, creating the Rockwin Fund (renamed the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in 1974) in 1956 to fund such projects. He was instrumental in establishing the Arkansas Arts Center, a facility designed to serve the entire state from its central location in Little Rock. He was a trustee of several schools, including Vanderbilt University, and was a member of the Southern Advisory Board for the Institute of International Education. He established student aid funds at several Arkansas colleges and in 1956 started the Arkansas Opportunity Fund to provide scholarships to qualifying students. He served in an advisory capacity during the development of both the University of Arkansas Medical Center and the Graduate Institute of Technology in Little Rock. In recognition of this and other services, he received several honorary degrees, including ones from the University of Arkansas, Hendrix College, New York University, the College of William and Mary, College of the Ozarks and Southwestern at Memphis.
Winthrop Rockefeller was married twice. He married the former Barbara Sears on February 14, 1948. They had one son before divorcing in 1954. On June 11, 1956 he married Jeannette Edris. She had a son and daughter from a previous marriage. The couple divorced in 1971. His son, Winthrop Paul Rockefeller, followed his father into Arkansas politics. He was elected the lieutenant governor of Arkansas in 1996 in a special election and was reelected to full four-year terms in 1998 and 2002.
On February 22, 1973, Winthrop Rockefeller died of cancer in Palm Springs, California. He was 60 years of age.